Reports of torture and other ill-treatment in police custody continued. The government failed to take adequate measures to protect health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Survivors of gender-based violence faced serious obstacles in accessing justice. Prisoner of conscience Azimjan Askarov died after contracting pneumonia in prison. Human rights defenders faced retaliation for their work. Proposed new legislation threatened to impose further restrictions on NGOs. Police dispersed a peaceful march to mark International Women’s Day.
The first cases of COVID-19 were reported on 18 March and a state of emergency was declared from 22 March to 10 May. Restrictions were severe; in some cases residents were sealed into their apartment blocks.
The country was plunged into a period of instability, after the October parliamentary elections results were widely contested and then annulled after mass protests. Several people held in custody were released by the protesters, including Sadyr Japarov who had been imprisoned in 2017 for hostage-taking. Amid bitter disputes over leadership, a group of parliamentarians nominated him as Prime Minister on 10 October. President Sooronbai Jeenbekov resigned under pressure on 15 October and Sadyr Japarov was confirmed as interim President, but then stepped down in November to run in presidential elections set for January 2021.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Credible reports of torture and other ill-treatment in police custody persisted. Uzbekistani journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev was arrested in the capital, Bishkek, on 9 August following an extradition request from Uzbekistan. He was denied access to a lawyer, and later alleged that investigators tortured him on 11 August to force him to sign a document by attempting to suffocate him with a towel. On 22 August, Bobomurod Abdullayev was forcibly returned to Uzbekistan, where he was at real risk of torture, while his application for asylum in Kyrgyzstan was still pending.
The UN Human Rights Committee ruled in the cases of Shukurillo Osmonov and Zhanysbek Khalmamatov in May and June respectively that Kyrgyzstan had failed to carry out independent investigations into torture allegations. Shukurillo Osmonov alleged that he was tortured by four police officers in 2011, to force him to confess to taking part in the mass disturbances in Osh in 2010, although he had been out of the country at the time. His allegations of torture were investigated by the same investigator who had been in charge of the investigation against him and who found no evidence of torture despite medical reports and eye-witness statements. Shukurillo Osmonov was later convicted of arson, rioting and murder.
Right to health – health workers
The authorities failed to protect the human rights of health workers. Doctors were not provided with adequate PPE in a timely fashion, they were expected to work excessive hours, were subjected to enforced and unsafe “prison like” quarantine, and remained on low pay (and were often not paid on time). Compensation payments to workers for death and illness due to COVID-19 were restricted and not paid to all those who otherwise should have qualified. Furthermore, doctors who spoke out about working conditions and lack of PPE faced reprisals.
Violence against women and girls
Survivors of gender-based violence faced serious obstacles in accessing justice, such as the failure to provide a protected environment for victims during the judicial process. Survivors were often subjected to threats from the prosecution or public, and in many cases withdrew their complaints. According to the Interior Ministry, in 2019, 8,519 cases relating to domestic violence under the Code on Misdemeanours were recorded, but only 554 cases reached the courts (their outcomes were not reported), and 560 were still under investigation. The rest were terminated because the alleged victims withdrew their complaints or petitioned the prosecuting authorities to end the proceedings. According to the Ministry, between January and March 2020, the number of reported cases of domestic violence increased by 65% compared to the same period in 2019. In June, the Code of Criminal Procedure was amended to allow police to detain perpetrators of domestic violence for up to 48 hours.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders continued to face harassment and reprisals for their work. Kamil Ruziev, the leader of the human rights organization Ventus in the city of Karakol, was targeted by the criminal justice system in retaliation for his work on behalf of victims of torture. Police arrested him outside a court building in Karakol on 29 May for not having any identification with him, in full knowledge that the relevant document had been deposited in the court building. He was remanded under house arrest on 31 May on a charge of allegedly falsifying a hospital letter presented to a court to explain why he missed an appeal on behalf of one of his clients, even though doctors confirmed that they had issued the letter. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
Prisoners of conscience
Azimjan Askarov died in prison on 25 July reportedly of pneumonia despite repeated calls for his release, including in view of the risk to his health from the COVID-19 pandemic. Azimjan Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2010 on false charges and following an unfair trial. He alleged that he had been tortured while in detention.
Freedom of association
In June, Parliament passed at the second reading amendments to the Law on NGOs which would impose additional onerous financial reporting requirements. Failure to comply could result in dissolution. The amendments passed without adequate consultation – civil society’s access to the discussion was limited because of COVID-19 restrictions, and online discussion was not provided. By year’s end, the required final third reading had yet to be timetabled.
Freedom of assembly
On 4 March, the Pervomaisky District Court of Bishkek upheld a decision by the city authorities to ban a peaceful march to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, on the grounds that measures needed to be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Court declared that “peaceful demonstrations disturb the stable functioning of everyday life of the capital” and imposed a ban on all assemblies of over 100 people except for official events in Bishkek until 1 July. Police dispersed a peaceful march on 8 March, detained 70 activists and held them for several hours before charging six with the administrative offence of disobeying a police officer. The rally set for 8 March finally went ahead on 10 March, and the ban on peaceful gatherings was lifted until the state of emergency was imposed later that month.